Adrian Beney's FAQs | FAQs

Note that all of these FAQs date from before the implementation of the Privacy and Electronic Communications (EU) Directive. They shold not be relied upon in 2015 or later. But they do provide a bit of interesting historic detail, and some of them are still up to date.

Section: On Line Communities and e-communication

Can we add alumni with e-mail addresses to our e-mail Newsletter, or do we have to ask them first? And do we have to give them an opt-out?


There are two issues here; data protection, and good practice.

  • Data Protection.
    There is no straight answer, except to say that it depends on how you collected the data in the first place. If you let people know that you would be using data you collect to contact them (which you probably would have done) then I don't see a Data Protection problem with this, since your use is consistent with the purposes for which you have gathered the data.

    On the other hand if you gave specific undertakings about how you would use people's e-mail addresses, and a newsletter was not one of them, then you should seek their consent. This could be done either by asking them to opt-in, or sending a newsletter with a very clear opt-out facility.

    My assumption is that most institutions which collect e-mail addresses from alumni will, in fact, have implicit consent for that e-mail address to be used for sending a newsletter. But even if this consent exists, whether or not it is a good idea to simply subscribe people to such a newsletter is an entirely different matter.

  • Good Practice in respect of e-mail.
    With the appalling incidence of spam coming into people's inboxes these days, my own view is that specific consent should always be obtained before adding anyone to any e-mail list or newsletter. I even get upset about my own employer adding me to internal lists that I have not requested. Bear in mind that as of the date of writing (5 November 2003) I am getting about 300 items of spam each day. That's about one every 5 minutes Even the best filters can not get rid of all of it.

    It seems to me that if we want people to enjoy getting and reading our e-newsletters, then we need to do everything we can to avoid them being treated as spam by those that receive them. The other name for spam is UCE - unsolicited commercial e-mail. Our e-mail is not usually commercial, so let's make sure it's not unsolicited either. Or if you do try a "add everyone to the list" then there ought to be a really clear opt-out.

  • Opt-Outs
    Paradoxically, one of the words that spam filters use to detect spam is the word "unsubscribe." The reason for this is that so much spam pretends to be above board by offering an unsubscribe option which in most cases simply gives the unsuspecting user the opportunity to tell the spammer that their e-mail address is valid. It usually does nothing actually to unsubscribe the victim from future mailings.

    For this reason the wording and mechanism for enabling people to control their receipt of the newsletter is very important. At Durham we have encouraged people to do this via our on-line community web site where they can control their subscription using the preferences section. We also give instructions about how people can manually control their subscription, including whether or not they wish to receive the newsletter in plain text or in html format. You can simply add this as a footer to the newsletter with wording like "To control whether and how you receive this newsletter, please use our web site at ....." (Another taboo phrase in the spam filters is often "Click here".)

    Even if this level of sophistication is not used, it is advisable to make the facility to control the subscription as self service as possible, and as clearly branded as possible.

    • Self Service. The reason for suggesting this is that if the subscription is simply controlled by your own office subscribing and unsubscribing recipients, then this will be time consuming, and prone to error. What will you do when someone e-mails to say "please send me the newsletter to my new e-mail address above." Do you know what the old one was? Do you even know definitively who they are? Much simpler to let people log in to a web site and control it themselves. They know what the old address was, and where they want it sent!
    • Clearly branded. This is important to gain the confidence of the user that their subscribe or unsubscribe request is being made on a website that really does belong to the organisation which is sending you the e-mail. Would you do on-line banking at a site that didn't have your bank's identity as clear as crystal?

If some of this seems a little over-the-top then maybe it is. But it seems that few things rile people as much as screwing up their e-mail. And people are much more intemperate when writing e-mails than when talking face-to-face or on the phone, so it's even more important to let them know you are respecting their right to not be badgered with stuff they might not want.

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